Feedback for student learning

Feedback for student learning in higher education



David Carless, Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong

Abstract (100 words)

Feedback is a powerful tool for improvement of student learning, yet complex to implement effectively. Feedback involves processes in which learners make use of performance-related inputs to enhance their work or learning strategies. New paradigm feedback practices place learners at the centre of feedback processes and emphasize student generation of insights to inform their work. To harness these insights productively, learners need feedback literacy: the capacities to make the most of feedback opportunities. New paradigm feedback practices are discussed within five inter-related themes: feedback literacy partnerships; feedback seeking strategies; peer feedback; digitally-enabled feedback; and feedback in online learning environments.

Keywords: Feedback, Feedback literacy, Feedback seeking, Peer feedback, Digitally-enabled feedback, Online feedback.

1. Introduction

In order to improve, individuals need to generate, receive and act upon feedback of different forms. It is necessary to appreciate what has been done well, become more aware of weaknesses and develop action plans for ongoing improvement. Indeed, it is well-recognized that feedback is one of the most significant levers to enhance student achievement (Hattie & Timperley, 2007), yet at the same time feedback processes are complex, and often fail to produce a worthwhile return on the time and resources invested (Carless & Boud, 2018). In higher education, there is a wide range of evidence that undergraduate students do not appear to be particularly satisfied with how feedback processes are generally managed (Buckley, 2020). National quality assurance surveys in the UK, Australia and elsewhere consistently suggest that feedback is one of the least satisfying aspects of the student experience. Admittedly, it is not clear how students are defining feedback in these kinds of surveys, and they may also be conflating it with the assessment grade that they received which is a form of feedback on their performance.

This sense of dissatisfaction about feedback processes is reinforced by evidence that students do not find the feedback they receive from their teachers easily understandable, useful or actionable (Winstone et al., 2017). Teachers’ frustrations with grading and marking are also evident in that they often experience these types of work as being time-consuming and relatively unproductive in struggling within the multiple demands of feedback doing double duty (Winstone & Carless, 2021). A related challenge is that students and teachers seem to have different views of what feedback is and what it should do (Adcroft, 2011; Carless, 2006). First-year undergraduates are influenced by the close relationships and guidance that they experienced in high school. This reinforces a common perception that feedback means being told what to do to obtain good grades. When students think of feedback in terms of telling and guiding, they are sometimes under-prepared for the autonomous learning culture of higher education. Teachers sometimes envisage a more active student role in feedback processes than some learners are prepared to commit.

A consequence is that how feedback is conceptualized and defined is both critical and disputed. A useful conventional view is to see feedback as mainly comprising information provided by an agent (e.g., teacher, peer or self) about aspects of performance or understanding (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). This view of feedback is roughly similar to dictionary definitions of feedback: “If you get feedback on your work or progress, someone tells you how well or badly you are doing, and how you could improve” (Collins COBUILD, 2018). Conceptualizing feedback as an information-sharing process does, however, risk underplaying the learner role in generating, making sense of, and using feedback of different forms. A more process-oriented social constructivist view emphasizes the student role in using feedback for enhancement purposes (e.g. Carless & Boud, 2018). This way of thinking has been referred to as a ‘new paradigm’ of feedback (Winstone & Carless, 2019) placing the learner firmly at the centre of feedback processes through strategies such as peer feedback and self-assessment. New paradigm feedback practices are defined as approaches which emphasize students generating and acting upon feedback inputs of different forms.

Internal feedback is an important concept within new paradigm feedback processes. Internal feedback denotes the insights that students generate when they compare their current knowledge and competence against some reference information, such as the work of their peers (Nicol, 2021). For Nicol, external information received by learners needs to be transformed into internal feedback if it is to influence ongoing development. Building on these strands of thinking, feedback is defined in this chapter as interactive processes through which learners generate performance-relevant information to enhance their work or learning strategies. Performance-relevant information encompasses how learners interpret their learning trajectory: it includes the performance of others; assessment outcomes; and responses of peers (van der Leeuw, Teunissen & van der Vleuten, 2018).

There are various learning theories underpinning feedback research and practice. Cognitivist approaches emphasise information-processing in that individuals receive feedback inputs, process them, and take action to close gaps between current and desired performance levels (Thurlings et al., 2013). Social constructivist feedback research takes the perspective that shared and individual interpretations are developed through dialogue, sense-making, and through co-construction between participants (Price, Handley & Millar, 2011). Sociocultural approaches to feedback highlight the role of participation and meaning-making mediated through activity within social and cultural contexts (Esterhazy & Damşa, 2019). Socio-material approaches suggest that feedback practices are entangled with social, material, spatial and temporal influences which may impede productive student involvement (Gravett, 2020).

Feedback processes are enacted within specific disciplinary cultures and norms, imbued with their own explicit and tacit procedures or assumptions. Sociocultural approaches are particularly useful in highlighting the disciplinary nature of feedback processes in that they take place in socially constituted activities within cultural contexts embedded in the norms of different disciplines (Esterhazy & Damşa, 2019). The social and relational dynamics of different disciplinary learning activities entail various affordances and constraints for the emergence of productive feedback exchanges (Esterhazy, 2018). Building on the notion of signature pedagogies, the characteristic ways feedback processes are carried out in specific disciplines are represented by the concept of signature feedback practices (Carless et al., 2020; Quinlan & Pitt, 2021).

The relational side of feedback is important because critical or negative comments can easily be discouraging or act as a threat to self-esteem. A learning environment that is underpinned by emotional and relational support is a pre-requisite for opening oneself to critique and revealing vulnerability (Steen-Utheim & Wittek, 2017). When feedback exchanges are imbued with trust, honesty and sincerity, there is more potential for productive learning to occur. Honest, constructive comments are more useful than empty praise, but the risks of negative emotional reactions are rife. Feedback interactions seem to work best within supportive relationships emphasizing that the aim of critical feedback interactions is to help learners to grow, although these kinds of close relationships are often hard to build within massified higher education.

In the last 10-15 years, there has been a significant increase in attention afforded to feedback in undergraduate education, and corresponding expansion of the research base. Two significant inter-related developments within the new paradigm of feedback are worth noting. The first focuses on feedback impacts in that the core of feedback processes lies in their impact on students, how learners improve their work or learning capacities. This line of thinking places particular emphasis on the closing of feedback loops, and evidence that students have used feedback information for enhancement (Boud & Molloy, 2013; Carless, 2019; Henderson et al., 2019). The second key development is in conceptualizing and researching student feedback literacy: the capacities to make sound academic judgments and work with feedback information so that it produces useful impacts (Carless & Boud, 2018). Unless students are developing a set of capabilities to engage productively in feedback processes, inputs may not lead to impact. The aim of this chapter is to illustrate how new paradigm feedback practices can be implemented in undergraduate education in order to produce feedback impact and the development of student feedback literacy. Five inter-related sub-themes are discussed: partnerships in feedback literacy; feedback seeking strategies; peer feedback; digitally-enabled feedback; and feedback in online learning environments. For each of these sub-themes, key rationales, potentials and challenges are addressed.

2. Partnerships in teacher and student feedback literacy

Feedback literacy has been a focus of vigorous research interest in the last five years or so, driven by the appreciation that effective feedback processes rely on the capacities that students bring to the feedback partnership as well as the support provided by teachers. In their heavily cited paper, Carless and Boud (2018) defined student feedback literacy as the understandings, capacities and dispositions needed to make the most of feedback opportunities. Key frameworks suggested that student feedback literacy principally involves seeking, generating and using feedback; the development of capacities in making academic judgments; and acknowledging and working with emotions (Carless & Boud 2018; Molloy et al., 2020). An ecological model of student feedback literacy also unpacks student engagement with feedback in terms of contextual and individual dimensions (Chong, 2021). There is a risk, however, that a focus on individual learner capacities assumes more agency than students possess within neoliberal mass higher education (Gravett, 2020; Nieminen et al., 2021).

How feedback literacy is manifested within different disciplines is an important consideration. A study of National Qualifications Frameworks and Subject Benchmark Statements, drawing on data from 6 countries, suggests that discipline-specific feedback literacies can be developed through authentic learning activities and assessment tasks (Winstone, Balloo & Carless 2020). These resonate with the concept of authentic feedback, mirroring the feedback practices of the discipline, profession or workplace (Dawson, Carless & Lee, 2021). Disciplinary-based feedback literacies need integrating cumulatively within disciplinary curricula. Eliciting, processing and enacting feedback are mechanisms for embedding feedback literacy within the curriculum, illustrated through practices, such as feedback requests, self-assessment, peer review, and curated e-portfolios (Malecka, Boud & Carless, 2020).

The initial focus of feedback literacy research mainly focused on the student contribution in line with the orientation of new paradigm feedback practices. At the same time, it was evident that feedback processes need to involve shared responsibilities between teachers and students, working in partnership towards the common goal of enhancing student work or learning strategies (Matthews et al., 2021; Nash & Winstone, 2017). A repercussion is that teacher feedback literacy has begun to become a research focus because unless teachers facilitate opportunities for students to experience using feedback productively, student development of feedback literacy is likely to be limited. In an initial conceptualisation of teacher feedback literacy, Carless and Winstone (2020) proposed a framework of three dimensions: a design dimension focusing on designing feedback processes for student uptake; a relational dimension representing the interpersonal side of feedback exchanges; and a pragmatic dimension addressing how teachers manage the compromises and workload implications inherent in disciplinary and institutional feedback practices. In an empirically-derived framework, Boud and Dawson (2021) added macro (programme design and development), meso (course design and implementation) and micro (student assignments) levels of activity. Yet teacher feedback literacies may also involve learning to negotiate and resist the institutional structures and power relations that influence or constrain new paradigm feedback practices (Tai et al., 2021).

3. Feedback seeking strategies

If students are to adopt a pro-active role in feedback processes congruent with new paradigm feedback practices, they need to elicit comments from suitable others and continue dialogue with them as necessary (Carless & Boud, 2018). Feedback seeking behaviors are defined as learners intentionally eliciting information about their own work for the purposes of improvement. Feedback seeking is a key element of student self-assessment because it enables learners to calibrate and refine their own judgements (Yan & Brown, 2017; Yan & Carless, 2021). Eliciting feedback information on self-identified priority areas forms part of the characteristics and repertoire of feedback literate students. Feedback seeking has been somewhat under-explored in research on higher education pedagogy, although there are significant strands in relation to the workplace (e.g., Anseel et al., 2015) and in medicine (e.g., Bok et al., 2013).

The literature identifies two main forms of feedback seeking strategies: inquiry and monitoring (Leenknecht, Hompus & van der Schaaf, 2019). Inquiry involves directly eliciting comments from others on progress or self-identified issues, either spontaneously or after being prompted by a teacher. These kind of feedback requests begin a dialogue which potentially creates the conditions for effective feedback exchanges. The inquiry function is illustrated through students seeking comments on selected aspects of their work, thereby enabling teachers to tailor all or part of their input to students’ preferences and perceived needs. Malecka, Boud and Carless (2020) proposed that feedback requests should be embedded purposefully within the curriculum in cumulative ways so that eliciting becomes increasingly sophisticated with students adjusting requests in the light of ongoing progress. Teachers can model and encourage feedback seeking strategies because sometimes students are wary of eliciting feedback because they may not want to seem too needy or reveal their limitations, and/or because they are worried about potential threats to their self-esteem if the response is critical. Supportive course cultures and trusting relationships create a climate to encourage feedback requests in which admitting doubts through eliciting information from others is a normalized aspect of pedagogy.

The second strand of feedback seeking strategies involves monitoring: drawing on information available in the environment, such as making comparisons with the previous performance of oneself or others, exemplars, assessment criteria, or consulting other resources deemed relevant. This form of feedback seeking stimulates internal feedback through interpreting cues or evidence. Monitoring is an aspect of feedback literacy in that it involves learners seeking cues from the environment, the assessment task criteria and exemplars (Joughin et al., 2021; Molloy et al., 2020). A further aspect of monitoring involves drawing on previous performance and related feedback to consolidate inferences for current and future development. The feedback literate student synthesizes previous comments from a wide range of sources to inform current performance.

To sum up this sub-theme, feedback seeking exemplifies new paradigm feedback practices in highlighting the active student role in feedback processes. Capacities to elicit feedback from others and continue interactions with them where necessary are part of feedback literacy. In terms of ongoing research, the knowledge base would benefit from more evidence of how students use feedback seeking strategies to enhance their work or approaches to learning.

4. Peer feedback

Peer feedback, also known as student peer review, involves learners evaluating and making judgments about the work of peers on a task that they have already attempted (Nicol et al., 2014). The main benefits from being exposed to the work of peers arise from students making comparisons between their own production and that of others (Nicol, 2021). Through being exposed to a variety of work of different styles and qualities, feedback literate students develop a sense of what quality work looks like. As they enhance their awareness of quality, and apply insights to their own work, they develop capacities in monitoring their own work in progress. The benefits that accrue from involvement in student peer review mainly emanate from the internal feedback that students generate (Nicol, 2021).

Whilst well-implemented by some teachers, peer feedback is often carried out in sub-optimal ways and a number of challenges commonly arise (Winstone & Carless, 2019). Students sometimes worry that they or their classmates lack sufficient knowledge or competence to provide useful feedback. They may also find that some classmates do not engage seriously in composing peer feedback or that their efforts in offering constructive comments are not reciprocated. Students are also generally wary of forms of peer assessment which involve the award of grades because the issues of bias and fairness are salient. By potentially disrupting some of the power dynamics of teacher-dominated feedback, peer feedback also faces socio-political challenges (Tai et al., 2021).

A significant, but frequently underplayed, aspect is the need for coaching in carrying out peer review as it cannot be assumed that students understand its principles and how to do it well. Coaching can include: explaining the rationale for peer feedback and its potential benefits; teachers modelling their experiences of academic peer review and strategies for managing the emotional impact of critical feedback; supporting students to generate and apply criteria; and advising them on how to carry out peer review more effectively. A key point is that the composing of peer feedback is often more beneficial than receiving comments because it is a rich process of diagnosing problems and suggesting actionable solutions (Nicol et al., 2014). Whenever possible, multiple peer reviews should be arranged so that students can be exposed to work of different quality and receive more than one commentary on their work (e.g. Harland, Wald and Randhawa, 2017). This prepares the ground for them to make comparisons between their own work and that of others (Nicol, 2021).

To sum up, peer feedback is a complex lifelong learning capacity that needs sustained and cumulative practice over time. Teachers need to prepare the ground for productive peer feedback interactions and support students in involving themselves profitably. Composing peer feedback and learning from comparing one’s own work with that of others are two of the most beneficial aspects of peer feedback processes.

5. Digitally-enabled feedback

Digitally-enabled feedback processes carry the promise of timeliness, convenience, and portability with the potential to streamline staff workloads and facilitate prompt feedback interactions with students even with large classes. Technology has considerable potential to enable promising feedback practices, especially when it is context, students’ needs and pedagogical considerations which drive technology choices.

Building on the previous sub-section, technology can be particularly useful in facilitating student peer review, especially with large classes. PeerMark within the Turnitin suite of applications and Moodle Workshop for peer assessment enable anonymizing of student submissions and automatic allocation of peer reviewers. Moodle Workshop features, such as scoring guides, were particularly useful in facilitating formative peer feedback on draft essay assignments within a macro-economics class of 800 first year students (Mostert & Snowball, 2013).

Audio and video modalities also enable the production of peer feedback. In a study of audio peer feedback within large online courses, it was found that providing and receiving audio feedback encouraged deep approaches to learning and a sense of commitment (Filius et al., 2019). Peer-to-peer audio or video feedback of short duration is a means of promoting student interaction, engagement, and the development of a learning community. Whereas teacher audio or video feedback risks perpetuating information transmission approaches (Mahoney, Macfarlane & Ajjawi, 2019), peer-generated variations harness the active role of students in generating internal feedback and making judgments.

Digitally-enabled feedback can be implemented in various user-friendly ways. Collaborative writing through the use of wikis or Google Docs enables learners to receive timely feedback from multiple sources, and take action in revising work in progress (Wood, 2021). Electronic marking and feedback through tools, such as ‘Track Changes’ or annotated PDF documents can be useful, especially if they invite student revision or response. Online annotated exemplars can serve as proxies for teacher feedback by clarifying what good performance in a task looks like and acting as inputs which stimulate students to enhance their work (Carless, 2020).

Recent developments in learning analytics make it possible to track a range of students’ behaviours in digital learning environments, such as whether they have viewed a resource or opened a file of feedback comments, and the time spent on these activities. Information based on learning logs and digital traces can enable formative feedback for large cohorts to be delivered just in time for student action (Pardo et al., 2019). Research into the impacts of analytics-based feedback suggests that this kind of feedback can stimulate self-regulated learning by enabling students to adjust their learning strategies to optimize their performance (Lim et al., 2020). Learning analytics focuses on individual behaviours whilst tending to downplay other aspects, such as social and collaborative learning, so users of analytics-based data need to be aware that what can be traced through analytics is only part of a student learning trajectory (Fawns, 2019). When presented in a student-facing way, learning analytics does, however, offer potential in contributing insights into students’ learning behaviours through providing information about facets of their own progress and in relation to other members of their cohort.

A promising example of digitally-enabled feedback is the Feedback Engagement and Tracking System (FEATS), a feedback e-portfolio which enables learners to synthesize feedback from various sources, and monitor their progress towards self-identified enhancement targets (Winstone, 2019). This e-portfolio involves a feedback review and synthesis tool where students collate multiple feedback inputs to identify focal areas for improvement; a bank of relevant resources such as videos, websites or articles to enable the development of self-identified target skills; and a student-generated personalized feedback implementation plan with tasks that need to be completed by certain dates. Through repeated review of feedback information and planning for uptake, students focus on how feedback supports their learning beyond an individual unit or task (Winstone & Carless, 2019). This signals the important and under-researched dimension of programme-level approaches to feedback: how can students be supported to transfer insights across the courses that make up their entire undergraduate programme?

To sum up this sub-section, digitally-enabled feedback is most productive when learners are involved actively in ways which support the development of their feedback literacy. Technology is harnessed most effectively when students’ needs are at the forefront, and technology facilitates new paradigm feedback practices rather than just the transmission of information.

6. Feedback in online learning environments

Emergency online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic has further placed the spotlight on online feedback possibilities. Many of the digitally-enabled possibilities discussed above are relevant but there are also some additional strategies or issues that merit consideration. Automated online quizzes, for example, are part of a flexible repertoire of online feedback methods and seem particularly popular in the hard sciences. These kinds of quiz seem to be most useful when hints rather than correct answers are provided to increase cognitive engagement (Förster, Weiser & Maur, 2018). If students retake an online quiz on multiple occasions, reflect on previous performance, and/or access relevant resources, productive learning can accrue.

Social presence is important in reducing isolation of the online or distance learner and feedback interactions can play a role. In the previous sub-section, the potential of peer-to-peer audio or video feedback was highlighted and teachers can also provide commentary through video feedback to highlight key issues, and enhance social presence. Video feedback should probably be short and to the point in order to minimize cognitive load; require some kind of student response; and can be combined with screencasting (Mahoney et al., 2019).

Screencasting tools enable teachers to provide audio and visual commentary on student work. A screencast is a digital recording that captures actions taking place on a digital screen. By capturing what is on teachers’ monitors, screencasts can show as well as tell the teacher response to student work. Possibly an even better variation congruent with new paradigm feedback practices is for students to generate their own screencasts or respond to those of the teacher. In the context of a distance learning Spanish programme, Fernández-Toro and Furnborough (2014) used screencasting to enable students to record their responses to feedback through thinking aloud for five minutes. This strategy enabled students to have time and space to reflect on feedback inputs and articulate their responses. It afforded dialogic interaction between students and teachers, and enabled teachers to see how students engaged with feedback. Screencasts can also be combined with cloud applications, such as Google Docs to enable students to respond to and question inputs through technology-mediated dialogue (Wood, 2021).

Learning management systems (LMSs) are probably somewhat underexploited in facilitating new paradigm feedback practices. A challenge for students is that the varied timing and location of feedback messages on the LMS makes it hard for students to engage productively with these feedback inputs (Winstone et al., 2020). With some adjustments, LMSs could be used as repositories for feedback information and students could be invited to show how they are using feedback from previous assignments to inform current submissions in analogous ways to FEATS above. Discussion forums on LMSs can enable students to involve themselves in dialogues around course content or work in progress. When well-implemented, discussion forums can generate feedback information but they need to enable student agency so that they do not just end up as busy work that does not contribute to substantive course learning outcomes.

Social media, such as Facebook or Twitter are also increasingly being used for academic interaction and may be particularly useful in online learning environments. There is potential here to capitalize on the popularity of social media by integrating feedback exchanges. A challenge, however, lies in bridging interpersonal and academic domains by using a predominantly social platform for learning purposes. An implication is that participating in these kinds of feedback exchanges might be a voluntary option rather than a compulsory course element. Under these circumstances, there is potential in social media for facilitating collaborative learning and feedback dialogues.

7. Conclusion

Effective feedback processes rest on shared responsibilities between participants within social and disciplinary contexts. This perspective resonates with new paradigm feedback practices in highlighting active student roles in seeking, generating, processing and using feedback information. The co-ordinated interplay between teacher and student feedback literacy represents a promising means of tackling the challenges of reaping learning gains from feedback processes.


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List of Relevant Webpages:

Developing Engagement with Feedback Toolkit

Enhancing feedback, University of Edinburgh

FEATS, University of Surrey

Feedback for learning project, led by Monash University

Y1 Feedback Project, led by Maynooth University